What does ‘sustainable’ even mean?

It’s rare that a term becomes such a key part of common lexicon in such a short space of time as sustainability. The term itself is derived from the Latin ‘sustinere‘, meaning ‘to maintain’, ‘to hold’ or ‘to support’. The word can now be found used widely in policy, commerce and economics, usually in a way that pertains strictly to environmental sustainability

It’s become widely used in the last 30 years in spite of (or perhaps because of) its multitude of potential definitions. For example, this catch-all term can be found explaining why you should buy a new dress, why a city council should build new properties or why a brand’s coffee is better than other coffees. But what does it actually mean?

Around 30 years ago, the World Commission on Environment and Development published Our Common Future, charting a path for development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This is essentially our current definition of environmental sustainability. However, the term has since come under fire for lacking any unified, definitive or quantifiable meaning – basically, it means nothing.

There is no doubt that the fashion industry requires movement in a direction that manages its demands on the environment without compromising what’s available for future generations. No one would argue that the fashion industry, responsible for 10% of global emissions, doesn’t require more investment in ‘sustainability’, but without any quantifiable definition of the term, what does this look like?

Various other terms within many industries are verified using third-party certifications and accreditations, meaning that a brand or business has to prove it is doing something to be able to use the term. The Soil Association, for example, is a UK-based charity that regularly reviews manufacturing processes throughout the supply chain to ensure a business is producing organic products. You cannot use the term ‘organic’ without being certified. The Global Organic Textile Exchange (GOTS), does the same for textiles, showing the buyer that the products throughout the supply chain have been verified by an external body as organic.

One issue with sustainability within the fashion industry is that almost all accreditations are voluntary. Rather than having regulatory standards, similar to those within the food industry and mandatory energy labels on EU white goods, accreditations are seen as ‘optional extras’, often used as a marketing tool rather than a baseline standard.

Because of this erosion of state power, brands and organisations within the fashion industry looking to become more ‘sustainable’ are left in a state of ‘choice paralysis’; there are a multitude of private-sector accreditations which all claim to provide certification of ‘sustainability’ in marginally different ways. And of course, because they’re private sector, all claim to be slightly better than their variants, yet none are government regulated. This isn’t to say they don’t all provide some benefit – many do in considerable ways – it’s just that the whole industry is open to confusion and lack of regulation, to the point that the consumer has a very hard time understanding what they’re buying into. 

Various voluntary initiatives available to the textiles industry – but by no means all of them

So what can we do?

With WOVN’s 2020 consumer report showing an 84% increase in the use of terms such as sustainable, ethical, Fair Trade and eco-friendly and an increased desire to shop from brands seen as ‘sustainable’, it’s important now, more than ever, to understand what this term really means. As brands cotton on to this fact, there’s an increasingly opaque arms-race to appear more sustainable, where being truly environmentally conscious is almost secondary to appearing as such.

There have been calls to incorporate ‘Carbon Labelling‘ on clothing, but of course being sustainable isn’t about simply releasing as little carbon as possible (in the same way that the health of a food item isn’t about being as low calorie as possible), but also things like wastewater reduction, ceasing the use of harmful chemicals, improving labour standards, using renewable materials, reducing waste textiles and so much more. While innovative, labelling like this would only solve a proportion of the problem, and potentially just become another method of greenwashing.

Accreditations will play an important role in the fashion industry’s road towards becoming more in balance with the environment, but there are serious changes that need to happen, including regulation of the regulators. Consolidating numerous similar accreditations into larger, stronger and more rigorous ones would be a powerful first step. 

Secondly, as a globalised industry, fashion requires international regulation. The majority of the textile industry has outsourced its negative environmental and social impacts to the Global South, affecting the people and habitats that can least afford to protect themselves, all the while making masses of money for the corporations residing in the Global North. This inequality simultaneously exacerbates the issues and hides them from view of the consumer. This means that it’s hard to know how what you’re buying is impacting the people who made the clothes, for better or worse. Because of this, we need international regulations throughout the supply chain, protecting both the environment in the world’s most biodiverse areas and those most affected by the industry’s indiscretions. 

In the meantime, companies must be more transparent about their supply chains, allowing the consumer to make their own decisions about what is ‘sustainable’ and what is not. After all, no brand is going to be perfect in all regards, certainly not while industry accreditations are such a minefield. It should be possible for the consumer to decide what matters most to them, and be able to accurately measure up brands to this standard. It is important that this doesn’t automatically disadvantage those choosing to become more transparent; while transparency may highlight areas requiring improvement, brands that choose to avoid transparency for fear of what it may show up should be penalised beyond those showing up less favourable elements within their supply chain. This is important because transparency is the first step towards accountability. Brands that doesn’t show the former will never have the latter.

Consumers, while requesting greater transparency and action from the worst offenders, should also realise that no amount of sustainable production will counteract buying clothes we don’t need. Buying less overall, buying secondhand, fixing what we already have and finding new homes for clothes we no longer wear will always be better than shopping, even from ‘sustainable’ brands. 

Further up the chain there should be incentives and clear direction for brands wanting to do better. This direction should be passed on to suppliers, with brands using their purchasing power to push suppliers to be better, and workers using unions to effect chain from the ground up. Large brands and conglomerates especially have huge amounts of power to effect change, and it’s time they were forced to do so. 

Over over 300,000 tonnes of clothing ends up in landfill in the UK each year – no matter how sustainable the brand, this can never be environmentally friendly.

TL;DR

  • There are many steps available to brands looking to become more sustainable, in whichever way they choose to interpret the term.
  • However, without quantifying what sustainability actually means, it’s going to be difficult for the fashion industry to ever reach the goal of being ‘more sustainable’ in any meaningful way.
  • Currently there is a mishmash of private-sector accreditations and certifications all with overlapping goals being regulated with varying degrees of success. Without unifying these standards and consolidating the accreditations that exist, it will be hard for consumers to be able to assess which brands are truly sustainable vs which are using accreditations as a facade.
  • As the fashion industry is a global one, it requires global regulatory bodies, which currently don’t exist. Currently it is beneficial for brands to outsource their labour and environmental harm to the Global South, which doesn’t have the resources to protect itself. International regulation could limit this harm.
  • In the meantime, brands should improve transparency of their supply chains to allow consumers to choose who they want to buy from. Brands should be congratulated for improving transparency, although not at the expense of action which is the obvious end goal (H&M is one of the most transparent brands but also one of fashion’s biggest polluters – transparency can’t come at the expense of action).
  • Consumers have the power to request greater transparency from brands, and also to stop buying from the biggest polluters. Shopping small businesses is a great place to start, but we should only buy what we really need. No amount of sustainability will make up for purchasing a wardrobe of clothes you never wear.
  • Large brands have huge amounts of purchasing power and are in a strong position to effect change. It’s about time they did so.

If you enjoyed this blog post and would like to read more, there is a great report on palm oil, fishing and textiles, all of which suffer the same lack of unified regulation – you can read it here. If you regularly read and enjoy my articles, please consider making a small contribution to the running of my blog.

Problems with plastic

We all know we should be using less plastic and reusing what we have as much as possible, so I’m not going to preach on here. However, I thought I’d do some quick-fire facts about our incessant plastic consumption since it was world ocean’s day recently (8 June).

  • Every piece of plastic that has ever been made still exists
  • 160,000 plastic bags are used globally every second
  • Plastic takes around 700 years to start to degrade (depending on the type of plastic)
  • When plastic degrades it breaks into smaller and smaller pieces, which make it easier for them to contaminate the environment
  • Marine animals often mistake plastic bags for food, meaning they eat them, which over time can kill them
  • In the last 10 years, we have produced more plastic than in the last century. Our consumption is not going down (yet)
  • There is set to be more plastic in the oceans than fish by 2050

Plenty of reasons (although by no means all of them!) to reduce plastic consumption. Of course, NONE OF US ARE PERFECT, so this is all about reducing consumption as much as possible in a way that you can sustain. The more you do the better, and over time we should all be looking at our consumption habits and trying to do better. BE better.

Pretty much all industries are culprits in the excessive plastic use department, but both social media and wellness are pretty bad, with all their plastic bottles, straws and whatever else. So here are some simple ideas on how to reduce your plastic consumption. Tell your friends, make it cool, blog about it! Only in spreading the word and doing our part will we make a difference

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When your swell bottle is so instagrammable it makes it into every one of your photos

1. Don’t use plastic straws – such a simple thing, and yet it can make a huge difference. Plastic straws make their ways into our oceans by the tonne, and are an environmental disaster. They’re totally unnecessary and easy to cut out. Of course it’s easy to forget to ask for your drink without a straw, but try to make a habit of it when you’re ordering something. You can buy reusable straws if you’re keen on them, and they’re pretty easy to carry around with you!

2. Buy a reusable water bottle – if you’re getting a water bottle every time you head to the gym/to a class, you really need to rethink this. Buying and carrying around a reusable water bottle is SO easy, and also encourages you to drink more water, which is also a great thing. We’re lucky in the UK that tap water is totally potable, so refilling is easy and free. If you’re looking to make one change, this is a serious one to consider!

3. Carry a rucksack or have canvas bags in your everyday bag – I was going to say ‘don’t use plastic bags’, but often we forget and have to purchase those pesky 5p single use bags anyway. Carrying around a canvas bag in your handbag means you’re not ever caught short on that quick trip to the shops. Or, if you’re keen on walking everywhere like me, a rucksack has a multitude of benefits, and doubles up as a great way to carry your shopping! Here’s a great one that doesn’t make you look like a pleb (like me).

4. Say no to microbeadsMicrobeads are tiny plastic beads found in all sorts of beauty products. Thankfully, they are banned in some countries (including the UK), but when buying things overseas, this is something to be aware of. They are a complete disaster environmentally.

5. Don’t get takeaway (coffee) cups – annoyingly, these are 100% NOT recyclable, because even though they feel like paper, the inside is actually lined with plastic, making them one of the worst everyday plastic offenders. If you get a reusable cup/thermos, not only can you feel good about it/yourself, but a lot of companies actually give you money BACK, meaning over the long run you’re saving too! Here are some great coffee cups and my personal favourite – a swell bottle (or chilly’s).

6. Spread awareness/talk to local businesses – Making changes in your life is a great way to make a difference, but spreading the word can increase the difference you make. Encouraging businesses to stop using plastic straws, takeaway cups and plastic cutlery is a great thing to do, and could even save the businesses money. Why not speak to someone at your workplace to see what can be done there? My work has been taking steps to increase its sustainability (no plastic dishes, meat free Monday, no straws etc). It’s great to be a part of the change!

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Why I am Pescetarian

Aka a non meat eater (but I eat fish).

I have been pescetarian since I was four years old. Initially it was because I hated the taste and texture of meat but as I grew up, I also realised where meat came from and decided to label my non meat-eating habits as vegetarianism. The initial few years were a huge battle with my family – I was coerced, tricked and forced into eating meat that I didn’t want to eat, with mixed results. Some of it made me physically sick (lots of funny stories about this) and all of it made me upset and put me off meat for life. But most of all, the fight to be able to choose my own foods made me incredibly aware of what I was putting in my body.

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“Insert cute picture of cows here” – but srsly.

For many a meal is not complete without meat. I learned to cook for myself when I was around 12 because I didn’t want to be stuck with salad, vegetables and bread for every family meal. What I found was an incredible variety of cuisines out there – so many societies have amazing foods without any animal products at all, let alone without meat. A very happy side effect of giving up meat was an interest in different cuisines, experimenting with cooking and an inability to accept that vegetables are boring.

In this article I’ll try to outline the reasons I’ve stayed pescetarian for 17 years, and why you too might like to cut down on your meat consumption. I’ve never tried to turn anyone vegetarian, and I think that the idea that people have to have labels, such as ‘vegetarian’, ‘vegan’ or ‘pescetarian’ is the reason a lot of people don’t do anything to reduce their consumption. Every little helps, and here’s why:

Health:

I’m not saying good quality meat is bad for you in any way, but if you reduce your meat consumption to purely fresh, free range meats, you’ll be cutting out all sorts of crap from your diet. Processed meats have been linked to cancer (let’s be honest, what hasn’t) and are in the same WHO (world health organisation) class as asbestos, tobacco and alcohol. They’ve also been linked to heart disease. It’s often really difficult to find out what’s in processed meats. If you’re eating meat to up your protein intake, chicken nuggets and burgers likely aren’t the best way as they’re often filled with water, low quality off-cuts of various meats and bread/corn. For your health and extra protein you should try to buy the most expensive meat you can afford and then eat less of it (and enjoy it more). Go for meat on the bone if you must buy it – bacon, sausages, burgers, smoked meats, salami and hams are all no-goes for health reasons. In the same way that low-fat chocolate wouldn’t satisfy chocolate cravings, low quality meats encourage you to eat more of the dissatisfying stuff than the high-quality, tasty ‘real deal’. In addition, if you give up meat you’re more likely to eat more vegetables to fill the space, which can only be a good thing!

Ethical reasons:

This is a no-brainer but I know it’s often not enough for some people to go veggie. If you don’t think about it, it’s not happening, right? Sadly, I think a lot of people have the attitude that ‘everyone else is eating meat, so it’s probably ok’. What annoys me most is that people don’t think for themselves – when we’re younger, seeing an animal killed would upset us. Our desensitisation to what we’re actually eating is a key reason I think a lot of people eat meat. Watching programmes about the reality of it opens your eyes to some of the blatant cruelty that goes on. Pigs, especially, are incredibly intelligent (on par with dogs) – if you wouldn’t eat dog (and I don’t know many people who would), you probably shouldn’t be eating pigs. For this reason, I think it’s important for people to not eat meat they couldn’t kill themselves and to know exactly where the animal they’re putting into their body comes from. I believe there is no excuse for people not to eat free-range meat. If you have to eat meat, know where it comes for and go for something local and free-range. Nothing else will do.

As Sir Paul McCartney once said “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian”.

Environmental:

Raising animals for consumption requires massive amounts of land and water. This land could otherwise be kept as forests or used for crop growth: when compared to staples like potatoes, wheat and rice, beef requires 160x more land per calorie, and produces 11x more greenhouse gases. Agriculture produces around 10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, mostly from the upkeep of beef cattle. Meat rich diets produce 7.2kg CO2 a day, compared to veggie and pesce diets emissions of 3.8kg and vegan diets’ 2.9kg per day. Of course, these are not set figures – if you decrease your meat (especially red meat) consumption then you will decrease your CO2 It’s a sliding scale that everyone should aim to be at the lower end of. In addition, grain fed cattle have a far greater environmental footprint than grass fed, so always go for grass fed if you MUST buy it. It’s the same thing about buying the best you can afford and eating less of it!

Moneys!:

Meat is expensive! You can reduce your yearly food bill by around 15% by cutting out meat, not to mention that in restaurants, the vegetarian foods are (almost) always cheaper. As a student this has been a godsend for me, and I always find that restaurants always put more effort into their vegetarian foods, using interesting spices and mixes of ingredients, whereas often in meat dishes they’re a lot plainer. Not an entirely biased opinion, as it’s been shared by a lot of my friends!

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An american feed-lot system. These are incredibly harmful to both the local and global environment.

As you can see, there are so many reasons why I cut out meat from my diet and have kept it out, and why you probably should cut down too. The main reasons people don’t are:

  1. A) Laziness – finding new recipes, brands, products etc DOES take time and thought, but it should be fun and interesting.
  2. B) ‘I need meat for protein’. As a sports-person, of course I know how important protein is for muscle maintenance and growth, but meat is not required by the body. Protein comes from countless other sources, both vegetarian and vegan. In addition, a lot of the meat people eat really isn’t high in protein at all, because of artificial fillers companies use to increase the weight of the meat (often water and salt).
  3. C) ‘A meal isn’t a meal without meat’ – I think this excuse is the worst, as it reflects the way we’ve been raised in today’s society. There are so many amazing cuisines around the world that have high protein, healthy diets without meat. Believing that a meal is only complete if it contains meat is a sign of people’s ignorance of the world and the amazing foods out there. Just look at Asia – some of the best food in the world contains no meat whatsoever. One of my favourite veggie recipes is this veggie lasagne.

 

I really hope this article has given you some inspiration and maybe the push you need to think about what you’re eating. If everyone reduced consumption of red meat to once a month or less and cut down on all other meats, the world would be a better place, filled with more conscious consumers. Have you made a change to your diet recently? Did it involve cutting out some meats, or animal products entirely? I’d be really interested to know what you think!

Further reading/watching:

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Being pescetarian really isn’t boring. In fact I think it opened me up to SO many more cuisines and ideas that I never would have thought of otherwise